Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Book Review- Affluenza: When too much is never enough

Affluenza, by Australian economists Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, is challenging to read. It uses statistics and facts to paint a frightening picture of an Australian society - and by extension Western society - that has forgotten why it exists.

Affluenza's key message is that, while Australians are three times richer than in the 1950s and among the richest people in the world, there is still a perception that the 'average Aussie family' struggles to get by. In fact, the book asserts, some of Australia's richest people claim they don't have enough money for their basic needs.

So what exactly are our basic needs? That's what the book asks, attempting to show the absurdity of the materialistic, money-dominated consumer culture.

Marketers get a bum rap in Affluenza, bearing 100% of the blame for the Current State of Things. The authors are largley right, but in their fervour to make their point they haven't shown any examples of positive, socially responsible marketers. What's worse is the only solution they have to the marketing problem (that marketers and brands create wants which lead to overconsumption and waste) is to come down strong with legislation. It's as if 'marketers' were an evil race from another planet. The solution's got to be deeper than legislation.

Other solutions to Affluenza include political action. The authors are unashamedly political, harshly criticising John Howard's government for preaching family values while undermining them through materialistic policies that place the market above all else. At the back of the book is a 'Political Manifesto for Wellbeing' which makes interesting reading.

Affluenza reminded me of In Praise of Slow; it covered similar ground and offered some similar advice, however, while Slow is a showcase of answers to the 'cult of speed', Affluenza spends at least 75% of its time painting a picture of the problem, before finally (halfway into the "What can we do?" section; I'd almost given up) looking at some people who have turned their backs on the altar of mammon: the downshifters.

Affluenza is by Australians, for Australians, but pertinent to a global audience. Apparently New Zealand is suffering from the opposite problem; after reading this book, I'm not so sure it's such a problem after all.


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